I love the actual football games, of course, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to loving the anticipation, the buildup and ultimate culmination of the NFL Draft just as much.
I’m a sick pup, but I know I’m not alone.
The NFL Draft is the sports world’s ultimate reality show. There’s deception, intrigue and surprise. There’s joy, heartbreak and utter catastrophe. In the end, some young lives and some NFL teams are forever changed for the better. Others, however, take abrupt changes for the worse.
It has all the characters — the players, the agents, the coaches, the GMs, the media, the owners and the fans. It has all the storylines.
The big storyline this year is the draft stock of USC quarterback Matt Barkley. I listed Barkley as my top overall pick in the mock draft I did prior to the 2012 NFL season. I don’t have him going in the first round of this mock draft. Why? If Barkley was at his best against Stanford in a shootout with Andrew Luck 2011, he was less than impressive in 2012. Interceptions, happy feet and several games in which he left a lot to be desired have me concerned about Barkley’s ultimate landing spot in April’s draft.
Though the Senior Bowl really kicked off draft season, the Scouting Combine is the unofficial start to my favorite time of the NFL year. It’s when a guy like Barkley can shut haters like me up and solidify his place in the first round.
Before we touch down in Indianapolis next week, here’s a pre-Combine mock draft to sink your teeth into. Be sure to follow these 32 players next week in Indy.
1. Kansas City Chiefs: Luke Joeckel, tackle, Texas A&M
Andy Reid’s the new sheriff in town, and he’ll likely bring a new quarterback to Kansas City, too. I just don’t see it being a rookie. As you’ll hear a thousand times over the next few months, there’s no Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in this 2013 draft class. Joeckel is one of the most promising offensive tackles I’ve seen enter the league in the past five years. Very athletic. Nimble. He was fantastic in Mike Sherman’s scheme and even better in Kliff Klingsbury’s at Texas A&M. This may not inspire the fan base, but it’s a franchise cornerstone. There’s talent in Kansas City. Now, there’s an offensive guru as the head coach, too. They’re a veteran QB away from being relevant.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars: Bjoern Werner, defensive end, Florida State
Of all the head coaching hires this offseason, only one defensive mind got a gig. Enter Gus Bradley, the defensive coordinator for a good Seahawks team the past four years under Jim Mora and Pete Carroll, in Jacksonville. The Jaguars defense had a league-low 20 sacks in 2012. Werner’s a 6-4 junior with quickness and strength. His 13 sacks led the ACC in 2012 and he is the current NCAA active leader in sacks with 23.5 — and that’s with another year of eligibility left. If Bradley wants to rebuild the defense from the inside out, Werner’s a great place to start.
Jones was a star at Georgia and may end up being the top player on my draft board come April. With a clean bill of health and considered 100 percent back from injury, he could still end up being the first player taken this year. Reggie McKenzie and Dennis Allen didn’t have a first round pick a season ago. This year, I think they’ll hit a home run with Jones at No. 3.
4. Philadelphia Eagles: Dee Milliner, cornerback, Alabama
Michael Vick will be Chip Kelly’s starting quarterback in 2013. Will Nick Foles be Vick’s backup? We’ll see how the Eagles proceed in the coming weeks, but regardless of who’s under center or the understudy to the guy who’s under center, the Eagles need to improve their defensive backfield. Nnamdi Asomugha’s best days are behind him, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can’t tackle, and the rest of the corners are just “guys.” Milliner isn’t just a “guy,” he’s the next in a long line of great Alabama corners to enter the NFL Draft. He’ll be a good fit in Philly — playing for whomever’s coaching them next season.
5. Detroit Lions: Barkevious Mingo, linebacker, LSU
For all the great defensive talent on the roster in Detroit, the unit still didn’t get the job done in 2012. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley had big 2012 seasons, but there’s room for another skilled pass rusher. At 6-4, 245 pounds, Mingo — the owner of the best name in college football — can play either the defensive end spot or at outside linebacker. A talented kid who has played in several big games, he could make an immediate impact in Detroit.
Yes, Cleveland drafted a quarterback in the first round a season ago. And sure, there are plenty of other pressing needs on the roster. But I’m very high on Wilson; I’m not very high on Brandon Weeden. Norv Turner won’t fail with grooming a quarterback and before Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle accident, the sky was the limit for this kid. Wilson is a 6-2, athletic, tough and smart guy who went through the ups and downs of last year in Fayetteville. He’s been through adversity and he’s never complained. He’s the No. 1 quarterback on my big board and I think others will join me after a week in Indianapolis. Cleveland and Wilson, to me, is a perfect match.
7. Arizona Cardinals: EJ Manuel, quarterback, Florida State
Expecting to see Geno Smith here? You’re not alone. By the time we’re done with the Combine, I think EJ Manuel will leap over Smith as well as Barkley, Tyler Bray and Ryan Nassib on everybody’s big board. Bruce Arians is going to bring a new and innovative offense to Arizona, and though the offensive line needs to be addressed, I think Arians goes with a quarterback and a fresh new start in the desert. Manuel has the height, the athleticism, the experience and the leadership to be a great quarterback in the league. Seeing all the new wrinkles and formations Arians used in Indianapolis and what other coordinators did in Seattle, Washington, and San Francisco this season, I think the athletic Manuel is the guy in Arizona. For the Senior Bowl MVP, the sky’s the limit.
8. Buffalo Bills: Geno Smith, quarterback, West Virginia
In a draft considered very light on quarterback talent, don’t be shocked if at least three still go in the first 10 picks. Teams are that desperate to find the signal caller of the future. New coach Doug Marrone tutored Nassib at Syracuse, and there will be a bit of an expectation for him to go the Mike Sherman/Ryan Tannehill route here. Buffalo has needs all over and there’s still some hope Ryan Fitzpatrick transforms back into his September-November 2011 form, but I think they go Geno. There’s a misconception that Smith is a running quarterback. He’s not. He’s a big pocket passer who played in cold weather in his first three years at WVU.
9. New York Jets: Star Lotulelei, defensive tackle, Utah
The “star” of this draft could be Lotulelei. See what I did there? Jets fans might not do flips over the selection of another defensive player in the first round, but Lotulelei is a steal at No. 9 overall. Compared favorably to Haloti Ngata, the 6-4, 320 pound junior college transfer was a stud at Utah the past two seasons. Married with two daughters, you won’t find him in any New York tabloids. He’s a relentless worker with no ego. That’d be a welcomed addition to the Jets locker room.
A freakishly athletic defensive end, more than one NFL player personnel man has told me they see some Jason Pierre-Paul in Ansah. He’s raw, young and a naturally gifted athlete. Tennessee’s pass rush and run defense still needs to improve. Desperately. This is a bit of a roll of the dice, but the upside greatly outweighs the risk. Gregg Williams will teach him quickly and have him playing at his full potential, no doubt.
11. San Diego Chargers: Eric Fisher, tackle, Central Michigan
Fisher is a surprisingly athletic 6-7, 310-pound tackle who can likely play either on the left or the right. The Chargers have a new head coach, a new offense and a new mindset coming into 2013. Giving Philip Rivers a reliable, big body to block for him on either the left or the right side of his offensive line is a wise move.
A year after drafting Tannehill No. 8 overall, the Dolphins go back to the Texas A&M well with this pick, scooping up Moore, the athletic DE/OLB hybrid out of College Station. He has experience as an OLB in a 3-4 and as a 4-3 defensive end, and has excelled in both spots. Dolphins fans may be clamoring for an offensive weapon here and rightfully so. But I like Moore as a Dolphin if he’s still on the board at 12th overall.
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Johnthan Banks, cornerback, Mississippi State
Tampa Bay hit the jackpot with its first three draft picks a season ago, hitting home runs with Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David. Banks is the second-best cornerback in this year’s draft. Tampa was stout against the rush this season and awful against the pass. With Ronde Barber now a safety and Aqib Talib playing in New England, there’s not much depth behind him at cornerback in Tampa. Banks is 6-1, 190 pounds and can match up with receivers a bit bigger than him. A solid pick here for the Baby Bucs.
The top wide receiver on my big board. I’m sending Patterson — the 6-3, 205 pound wideout — to Carolina. Cam Newton and Steve Smith have been a great 1-2 duo for two seasons. It’s time Newton has a big, young wideout with No. 1-receiver potential in Charlotte. A JUCO star at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas, Patterson had a breakout year in 2012 when No. 1 wideout Da’Rick Rogers was unceremoniously dismissed from the team last summer. Patterson’s numbers — 46 catches, five touchdowns — won’t wow you, but his athletic ability will. I hate the term “tremendous upside,” but Patterson has … well, tremendous upside. This one’s a bit of a gamble, but if Charlotte is going to keep Newton for the long-term future, it has to give him some receivers. Here’s a potential true No. 1 for him to grow old with.
15. New Orleans Saints: Dion Jordan, outside linebacker, Oregon
The Saints will make the move to a 3-4 defense under Rob Ryan and will quickly try to erase any memories of how the unit performed in 2012. Setting the record for most yards given up in an NFL season, the New Orleans D lacked any pass rushing bite a season ago. I was a big fan of Aldon Smith coming out of college. Jordan reminds me a lot of Smith. I’ve seen him going in the top 10 of some mock drafts. It’s possible. If he slips to 15, New Orleans should pounce.
16. St. Louis Rams: Keenan Allen, wide receiver, California
Though the Rams spent an early second-round pick on Appalachian State wideout Brian Quick in 2012 and just signed troubled wideout Titus Young off waivers, I think they’ll go with another wide receiver in 2013. At 6-3 and 210 pounds, Allen has the size to be a reliable go-to No. 1 in the pros. He was a star at Cal despite anemic quarterback play. Sam Bradford has a lot to prove in 2013 and the NFC West is arguably the league’s toughest division. Adding a weapon like Allen will give him the best chance to succeed.
Will the bizarre Internet dating scam that dominated the news cycle for two weeks impact Te’o’s draft stock? Perhaps. Put him on the right team, in the right defense and in the right locker room and it’ll all be an afterthought once actual football is being played. I can’t imagine a better place for Te’o than Pittsburgh. Larry Foote’s played well in the middle, but the Steelers could use a blue-chip inside linebacker for their aging linebacker corps. Jason Worilds, LaMarr Woodley, and Lawrence Timmons are going to be three-fourths of that unit for years to come. Te’o would be a great final piece to that puzzle. On a worse team in a less structured organization, Te’o could struggle. In Pittsburgh? If he can play, he’ll be just fine.
Though you won’t read this many places, I think Tony Romo had his best year as a pro in 2012. He did so playing behind a terrible offensive line. Doug Free hasn’t been the player the Cowboys thought he’d be when they rewarded him with a big contract and Tyron Smith seemed to be called for a false start on every other play from scrimmage this season. Injuries stung, but there needs to be more good, young linemen protecting Romo. Warmack can play guard or center and he can play them in the big leagues right now. Not as sexy as some of Jerry’s usual picks, but a solid one.
19. New York Giants: Shariff Floyd, defensive tackle, Florida
Floyd has been slated anywhere from the top five to the second round, but I think he’d be a good fit in New York, where he can replace the recently released Chris Canty. He occupies blockers and though listed at 305 pounds, he is likely a bit heavier. He can step up and contribute right away for the Giants in 2013. Marvin Austin can’t seem to stay healthy and though there’s still hope for the former North Carolina star, Floyd could end up being the guy for New York. The Combine will be a telling time. He’s one of those guys whose stock can skyrocket after a good week in Indy.
20. Chicago Bears: Lane Johnson, tackle, Oklahoma
Jay Cutler has one year left on his current contract. If he’s going to even come close to his full potential as a pro, he needs an offensive line blocking for him. The pass protection wasn’t just laughable this season — it was miserable. Johnson stole the show at the Senior Bowl and is expected to raise even more eyebrows in Indianapolis next week. Marc Trestman’s going to be creative, different and successful in building an offense around Cutler’s talents. It’ll be a waste if the offensive line plays like it did in 2012. Johnson could be a great addition to a line that needs tons of help.
21. Cincinnati Bengals: Alex Okafor, defensive end, Texas
Defensive end Michael Johnson had a big year in 2012, but is set to become a free agent this spring. Okafor would be a great fit in Mike Zimmer’s 4-3 scheme. Though not the name his teammate Jackson Jeffcoat was at Texas, Okafor went from a special teams standout in his freshman year to a defensive force in his last two. Capable of playing DT or DE, he’d be a nice addition to an already dangerous Bengals defensive line.
22. St. Louis Rams (From Washington Redskins): Kyle Long, tackle, Oregon
Who?! Oh, Chris Long’s brother and Howie Long’s son, that’s who. Kyle Long is raw, having just made the move from baseball to football in the past few years, but the sky is the limit for the next in a legendary football family. Is this too soon for a guy who didn’t dominate in college? Not at all. At 6-6 and 310 pounds, Kyle is considered the most athletic of the family, a claim made by Howie and Chris. St. Louis has the benefit of two first-round picks. I think they go wideout with its first one and roll the dice on the second one. I might be the only person with Long in their first round, but I love the idea of St. Louis adding Chris’s younger brother to the locker room.
23. Minnesota Vikings: John Jenkins, defensive tackle, Georgia
The highly touted Juco transfer became Georgia’s 3-4 defensive cog in the middle in 2012. Huge, fairly nimble and full of potential, he may work better in a 3-4 than Minnesota’s 4-3. Either scheme works, though. Jenkins can’t play every down, but — think Terrence Cody in Baltimore — when he’s on the field, he can make a difference.
24. Indianapolis Colts: Jesse Williams, defensive tackle, Alabama
Coach Arians goes to Arizona, but Pep Hamilton — Luck’s former offensive coordinator at Stanford — replaces Arians as the new offensive coordinator. Regardless of who’s running the offense, I think Indy goes defense in the first round this year. The Colts drafted offensive players with 11 of their 12 draft picks a season ago. Now, they go D. A big DT who can man the nose tackle spot in Indy’s 3-4, Williams is a versatile Australian-born big man who anchors college football’s most feared defensive unit. At 6-3, 320 pounds, he’d be a nasty addition to Indy’s defensive line.
25. Seattle Seahawks: Tavon Austin, wide receiver, West Virginia
Russell Wilson silenced all of his critics who thought he was too small, didn’t have a big enough arm and wasn’t worthy of a third-round pick. Austin would be an incredible addition to the Seattle offense. With receivers now getting free access off the line, dynamic slot guys like Austin become all the more dangerous. He’s a lightning rod. This is Percy Harvin Part II. Sidney Rice, Golden Tate and Austin would make for quite a trio.
26. Green Bay Packers: Alec Ogletree, outside linebacker, Georgia
The Packers spent their first six draft picks of 2012 on defensive players and yet, they still have a hole at the outside linebacker position opposite of Clay Matthews. Ogletree’s the real deal and the kind of pass rusher Dom Capers covets. Ogletree can get to the quarterback. A converted safety, he’s played both the inside and outside linebacker positions, too. This may be a bit higher than others have the uber-athletic talent going, but his stock will only improve after the Combine.
What was made glaringly obvious towards the end of Houston’s 2012 season was that the Texans didn’t have a dangerous second threat at receiver. Andre Johnson had a strong season, but the offense won’t take the next step if one of the young guys — Devier Posey, Lestar Jean, someone — doesn’t make the leap next year. Williams, a 6-2 speedster, led the nation in receiving yards despite working with a new quarterback and without Kendall Wright. Good fit, here.
28. Denver Broncos: Eddie Lacy, running back, Alabama
Crimson Tide running backs have gone in the first round of the last two drafts. Add another to the list with Lacy. In 14 games last season, Lacy ran for 1,322 yards and scored 17 touchdowns. He also caught 22 passes and scored two receiving touchdowns. The Broncos offense went limp in the AFC divisional round game against the Ravens when Knowshon Moreno went down. Lacy is a sturdy back who can deliver every down and punch it in on the goal line. Denver has plenty of running backs on the roster but none with the future of Lacy.
29. New England Patriots: Matt Elam, safety, Florida
The Patriots defensive backfield improved greatly over the second half of the season, but still needs more playmakers. Elam was a highlight reel regular in his time with the Gators, but he also has the fundamentals down. NFL safety Abe Elam’s younger brother, Matt is a high-energy, high-impact guy. He’s 5-10, 210 pounds and can play against the run and the pass. Bill Belichick has long been a fan of Florida Gators (see Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, Aaron Hernandez). Elam’s another highly coveted Urban Meyer recruit.
30. Atlanta Falcons: Xavier Rhodes, cornerback, Florida State
Rhodes is a 6-1, 220-pound big corner who flirted with leaving school early a year ago. He had a strong 2012. He’s a borderline first-, second-round talent. The Falcons took another flashy cornerback out of FSU a few years back in the first round. His name was Deion Sanders. That’s not a fair comparison. Sorry, Xavier.
31. San Francisco 49ers: Zach Ertz, tight end, Stanford
Free agent Delanie Walker is likely going to end up playing elsewhere in 2013, serving as a No. 1 tight end. The thought of Ertz — Stanford’s top target in 2012 — reuniting with Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh is a scary one. Listed at 6-6 and 250 pounds, Ertz is big, athletic and has reliable hands. Compared often to Jason Witten, this could be a steal at 31.
The Baltimore defense will have to reload this offseason. Cary Williams, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe could all be playing elsewhere next season, and we know Ray Lewis isn’t coming back. Teams ran all over the Ravens during the regular season, though the team obviously picked it up in the playoffs. Richardson is a 295-pound run stuffer who can get to the quarterback. He had 10 tackles for a loss and was an All-SEC performer in 2012. He’s not going to single-handedly replace any of those potential departures, but he’s a very good piece to the rebuilding puzzle.